Playing chicken on Mombasa road can be stressful. The road is full of trucks overtaking trucks, person cars following in their tails, and matatus overtaking them all. If you’re lucky, there’s a hard shoulder, or at least some flat gravel, onto which you can swerve when the oncoming vehicles start flashing their headlights. Once you’re through that stretch of the road, you reach the wilderness: Tsavo National Parks.
My travel companion, let’s call him Mr Honey Badger, had meticulously planned a route along the back roads to avoid the Mombasa road horror show. He thought we could do better than risking our lives. Thus, we found ourselves driving along a C-road with smooth tarmac and light traffic, and then through a smaller park, Amboseli, under a sky that was blue and sun that was white, past a green lake and pink flamingos, and zebras that were surprisingly clean.
By the time we reached Tsavo West it was already dark. Lava fields merged with the blackness of the night and tangled bush framed both sides of the road. We arrived at the lodge and soon made our way to the large, semi-open dining hall with tapestries hanging from the ceiling and a magnificent view over a watering hole and Chyulu Hills. Dressed for dinner, Mr Honey Badger and I sat down at the only candlelit table – we were the only guests – and took in the spotlighted view of the watering hole while eating vegan curry. All kinds of moths and beetles emerged from the darkness, buzzed around our table and nearly drowned in our wine. We rescued one after the other, while the wild animals stayed clear of the watering hole in front of us.
Mr Honey Badger and I slept late the next morning, got up, and put on clothes that were still fresh from the city. We decided to go for a drive. The blue mountains rose in front of us and we passed scattered bush that burst into technicolour green, giraffes with their heads in the Acacia crowns, and ostriches that gallivanted across the savanna. We soon learnt that the map was not to be trusted and had to turn back on more than one occasion as the road disappeared into a faint trail or pond of mud. Yet we got stuck. We were within mobile network coverage, and Mr Honey Badger called the lodge for rescue. Indeed, the white tablecloths and electric fences didn’t seem far. While waiting, we managed to collect enough dry sticks for traction and succeeded in getting ourselves out of the hole. Little did we know that this was the first hole of many that we were to encounter in the days to come.
On this second day our mood was still cheery, and we continued to wear our best behaviour like freshly pressed clothes. The next day’s stuck-in-the-mud situation got a bit dirtier. The cheeriness had already faded over breakfast as the kitchen staff repeatedly delivered the wrong order. Frustration and annoyance followed us into the car. Mr Honey Badger directed his anger at me and I looked for relief in the trees and the bush outside the window. Our mutual frustration and anger grew and swelled in the heat as the day progressed. We got stuck in the mud again. It engulfed the car like smooth porridge and nearly did the same with our feet. A few nearby construction workers came to our rescue and helpfully pulled us out with their car. We continued along the rocky, uneven road. Eventually we reached a river, only to realise there was no way to cross. We opened the windows to let in fresh air, but annoyance, frustration, and anger clung to our clothes like the red Tsavo dust.
Driving perhaps a little too fast, playing the music a little too loud, we got caught in a groove in the road. The car went up an adjacent ridge and rolled over: a dog ready for a belly scratch. We crawled out, a bit shaken, and investigated the damage. The windshield was cracked and the rear light was broken. Otherwise it simply lay there with its belly in the air. Fear overtook anger, compassion overtook fear. Under the blazing sun, we crawled back into the car and stretched out on the ceiling while waiting for help. With Mr Honey Badger’s arm around me, we stared at the upside-down seats of the car, giggling and imagining we were lying in a field gazing at the stars.
A crew from the lodge eventually turned up and took us back. Resting in our rooms, the wilderness started to encroach on us. Moths batted their heads against the windows and dead insects lined the edge of the terrace door. Our clothes and suitcases were full of dust, and the air swirled with insults. I could see a tortoise slowly making its way on the ground underneath the terrace. Apparently, a honey badger can chew through the shell of a tortoise. I can tell you it hurts.
Our replacement car arrived the next day. Mr Honey Badger took it for a test drive while I was still asleep. Before too long, he called me and said, ‘Wake up, get dressed, I spotted a pack of wild African dogs!’ I dragged my sleepy body out of bed, found some clean clothes, and we both delighted in the sight of a dozen or so of these rare, playful, curious dogs running along a landing strip and playing tug-of-war with a piece of black plastic. Later on, a guide told us that wild dogs often don’t kill their pray, they just eat them alive.
We decided to try being better towards one another. During another candlelit dinner with white tablecloth, soup spoons, wine glasses and beetles buzzing around our heads, we talked about ways in which we would try avoiding falling into the same holes. I hid behind laughter, he looked at me and said, ‘Well at least I’m trying.’
In the days that followed, we went for game drives and nearly fell off the map, nearly got lost in darkness, yet managed to stay on the road, caught the last glimmers of daylight. We saw lions snoozing by the roadside, a puff adder crawling across the road, a pair of ostriches racing alongside our car on the open savannah, a rock monitor emerging from a riverbed.
We went deeper into the wilderness, to the other side of the national park. The night before the long drive, an offhand comment about past lovers stung me, venomously, and I fell asleep paralysed on the edge of the bed. We woke up and drove through a jungle of criticism and contempt, then crossed the savannah in defensive silence. We stayed at a lodge outside the park gate, but wilderness surrounded us. Out of clean clothes, we sat down for dinner in shirts and trousers encrusted in dust, sweat and sunscreen, at a table laid for us next to a crocodile-infested river.
We started our drive back to Nairobi the following day, the way we came. Too long a distance to complete in a single journey, we stayed over at a lodge in Amboseli. As darkness fell, safe in our room, we heard an animal calling out in distress. We soon found out that a set of lions had killed a wildebeest right in front of the hotel terrace. The staff swiftly laid a table for us al fresco and we watched the lions in torchlight while we ate. Eventually the lions dragged the carcass away and only darkness remained.
Alexandra Cronberg is a Nairobi based survey methodologist and occasional writer.